Many people know that it's illegal to sell or trade ivory or kill an elephant for its tusks and has been for decades. But fewer have heard of the pangolin—a mammal found in Asia and Africa—that has rapidly become one of the world’s most trafficked animals in just the last few years.
This is one example of the major surge in "environmental crimes" now being reported by international agencies. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the global police agency Interpol, the value of environmental crimes has risen by 26% since 2014 and at an annual rate of about 5% to 7%—more than double the growth rate of the global economy overall.
These crimes, which include wildlife poaching and trafficking and illegal logging and mining, are now the world’s fourth most valuable crime sector (after drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and human trafficking and way ahead of small arms trafficking)—with an estimated value of $91 to $258 billion a year. Organized criminal organizations are increasingly involved, because it turns out gold, obscure animal species, and even electronic waste are easier to smuggle than drugs.
"The growth rate of these crimes is astonishing. The report that follows reveals for the first time that this new area of criminality has diversified and skyrocketed," write UNEP director Achim Steiner and Interpol secretary general Jurgen Stock, in a forward to their joint report.
There isn’t one single definition of an "environmental crime," but the report uses it to mean illegal activities that hurt the environment and exploit or damage natural resources. They are crimes that affect many victims—both human and wildlife—that depend on an intact natural environment for their safety, security, and economic and personal well-being. There are also ripple effects: trafficking in illegal natural resources, has been a funding strategy for extremist armed groups; governments lose as much as $26 billion a year in tax revenues; and future generations are surely worse off.
The largest environmental crime sector, at $51 to $152 billion in value, is forestry crimes, including illegal logging and white-collar corporate crimes such as gaming carbon credit markets. Other sectors include illegal wildlife trafficking ($7 to $23 billion), illegal fisheries ($11 to $24 billion), illegal mining ($12 to $48 billion), and waste dumping ($10 to $12 billion). The ranges of values are so wide because of bad data, but the estimates are based on the best sources of information and intelligence from Interpol.
Criminals are getting better at evading existing, often insufficient enforcement efforts, and are diversifying their contraband and geographies so they are harder to track. For example, a global network has grown smuggling ozone depleting gasses that are phased out by international law, with seizures taking place in widely dispersed places like Pakistan, Paraguay, and Ghana in the last three years. When smuggling tropical timber, they "launder" the wood through pulp and paper products rather than trying to transport whole logs.
There have been examples of success at fighting back. Brazil managed to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 76% in just five years by establishing an office responsible for coordinating a huge effort. Technological solutions have sometimes helped, such as drones that monitor for poachers or materials that can permanently mark illegally sourced wood.
The report makes several recommendations to step up the response to environmental crimes, including better information sharing, funding, and international coordination. Potentially new laws or treaties may be necessary. Importantly, it’s not just about cracking down, they say, but creating structures that provide economic incentives and alternative livelihoods that dissuade local populations from participating in environmental crime.
"The world needs to come together now to take strong national and international action to bring environmental crime to an end," says Steiner, in a statement.
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